BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The EU’s Brexit negotiator questioned the commitment of British counterpart David Davis after talks began, telling colleagues in July the Brexit minister did not see his direct involvement as a “priority”.
The minuted remarks from July 12, by Barnier and by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, on their doubts about the British negotiating team confirmed concerns voiced by many EU diplomats and officials as Prime Minister Theresa May took time to launch negotiations and then called an election in June which further delayed talks and also cost her majority.
However, questioned on Thursday about the newly published minutes of a European Commission meeting, Michel Barnier declined to renew that criticism of Davis and said his presence at the start and end of two subsequent rounds of talks in Brussels had been reasonable and mirrored Barnier’s own role.
In reporting that Barnier had told the weekly “college” meeting of Juncker’s 28 commissioners that the first round of talks on June 19 had gone well, the minutes said:
“Mr. Barnier ... observed that the United Kingdom had not yet really engaged in the negotiations or spelled out its positions. He noted in this regard that David Davis ... did not regard his direct involvement in these negotiations as his priority and there was also a possibility that he might not be present at the full opening session of the July cycle of talks.”
In fact, Davis did attend the start and end of that round and a subsequent four days of talks last week. Like Barnier, as the political supervisor, he did not attend the technical meetings that involved over 100 staff on either side.
However, both sides acknowledged last week’s talks made little progress, frustrating British demands for a swift move to talking about a future free trade pact with the EU and prompting Britain’s trade minister to denounce “blackmail” from Brussels.
Despite long-distance political barbs from either side, Barnier and Davis have demonstrated a determination to keep matters polite in person, with both talking of a need for mutual trust to avoid a breakdown in talks that could result in a chaotic British departure into legal limbo in March 2019.
According to the Commission minutes, Barnier “emphasised the importance for himself personally of being able to negotiate with a stable, accountable and authorised interlocutor”.
Juncker “expressed his concern about ... (Davis’s) apparent lack of involvement, which risked jeopardising the success of the negotiations”. He told Barnier “not to accept discussions at the purely technical level with negotiators who had no political mandate, while fundamental political questions still remained”.
A spokeswoman for Juncker declined to elaborate on his minuted remarks but noted that they were made two months ago.
Barner told reporters that he had no reservations about the professionalism of Davis, with whom he had “cordial” relations.
“We have our teams,” he said. “I have my team, and I think his attitude is perfectly logical. It’s the same as my own.
“We’re represented by deputies ... But I’m being kept posted every hour or just about every hour on exactly what the negotiations are bringing and I’m sure the same applies to him.”
Senior EU officials say Barnier himself, a former French foreign minister, is like Davis a political operator who tends to leave the detail of negotiation to expert civil servants.
Barnier’s deputy Sabine Weyand, a German Commission veteran, and Oliver Robbins, the top civil servant in Davis’s ministry, drive the detailed negotiations, with Barnier and Davis on hand to deal with issues that require political dealmaking.
Reporting by Alastair Macdonald; editing by Ralph Boulton; @macdonaldrtr